By JEFF ARMSTRONG
The May 10 conviction of Guatemala’s Efrain Rios Montt for genocide perpetrated against the Maya Ixil people of that tortured land—though reversed at least temporarily on May 31 by a 3-2 margin of the oligarchical elite’s Constitutional Court—is a world historical precedent that started 13 years ago with a small but determined group of survivors of the U.S.-sponsored massacres of the 1980s.
Like the Ixil, the grassroots people of the Lakota (Sioux) nation are appealing for international support in their struggle to survive against a genocidal onslaught by the U.S. that began more than one and a half centuries ago and continues to this day. Long among the most formidable internal opponents to U.S. colonization, the Lakota remain at the forefront of indigenous resistance to corporate and governmental hegemony at the state, national, and international level.
When a delegation led by Lakota grandmothers attempted to file a formal complaint of genocide against the U.S. and its constituent states with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on April 9, the elders and their supporters were penned in like cattle and blocked by security agents from entering the UN headquarters in New York.
“Our nation is experiencing genocide, and we have been coming to this house called the United Nations since 1984 asking for help, and they never, ever allow us in. We should be in there, we should be able to use the International Court of Justice,” said Charmaine White Face. “No one wants to stand up to the United States. They’re too scared of the United States. But who is the United States? It’s every one of you.”
Not surprisingly, the Lakota’s efforts, like those of the Ixil, have been shunned by the corporate media, but they continue to gain momentum on many fronts. On June 3, they were scheduled to testify to the UN Human Rights Commission but were forced to reschedule the event to the following week due to alleged threats to the elders.
As evidence of genocide, the Lakota cite “the murder of Lakota people both past and present, persistent and ongoing mental and physical harm of Lakota; ongoing forcible transfer of Lakota children to non-Lakota and non-Native custody; forced sterilization of Lakota women: and ongoing genocidal conditions of life, including radioactive pollution, leading to the destruction of the Lakota Oyate as a distinct, and separate national, ethnic, and religious group.” The Lakota grandmothers and their allies in the Lakota Solidarity Project have even produced a powerful, full-length documentary, “Red Cry.”
But the UN complaint is just one facet of a multi-pronged legal, political, and educational movement by the Lakota to stop the state removal of children from their families into white foster homes and institutions, arguably the most salient and best-documented evidence of ongoing U.S. violation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Article 2 of the genocide convention states: “… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Historically, one could make a case for the applicability of most, if not all, of the above provisions to official U.S. policies against all indigenous peoples over more than two centuries. Certainly, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Wounded Knee massacre (of which the perpetrators have yet to be stripped of their Medals of Honor), and Sand Creek slaughter perpetrated by the U.S. military in the latter part of the 19th century, the General Allotment Act of the same time period, the Termination/Relocation policy of the 1950s, the FBI’s war on the American Indian Movement, and the cumulative legal decisions validating the above on explicit or implicit grounds of racial or cultural superiority come to mind as constituting violations of contemporary international standards of crimes against humanity, if not genocide per se.
Indeed, the ink was scarcely dry on the Genocide Convention before the U.S. deliberately set out to violate Article 2(e) by arbitrarily removing Native children from their families as part of a comprehensive strategy of abolishing reservation boundaries and absorbing indigenous peoples into the states that surround and besiege them.
In 1950 President Truman appointed Dillon S. Meyer, fresh from his experience administering the Japanese internment camps with an iron fist, as Indian Commissioner to carry out the final solution to the Indian Problem (i.e., their stubborn refusal to fade into the mists of history, itself a genocidal concept) that has haunted this nation since its inception. It was the formal policy and procedure of the United States at the time to forcibly transfer indigenous children to white homes and boarding schools as a component of a strategy to “terminate” tribes as distinct peoples, meeting the essential threshold of intent under the Genocide Convention.
It would have been embarrassing to say the least if the Soviet Union or its allies would have initiated legal genocide charges against the self-avowed fount of human liberty at the United Nations. So it was that the U.S. celebrated its victory over genocidal Nazi imperialism by rebranding the practice in Indian Country as emancipatory individualism and refusing to ratify the 1948 convention until nearly 40 years later.
Ironically, it was the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 that enabled the U.S. to ratify the Genocide Convention by manifesting its intention to stop the wholesale removal of Native children from their families and tribes. ICWA established minimal protections of due-process rights for indigenous parents and recognized the exclusive jurisdiction of existing tribal courts to adjudicate child welfare cases within reservation boundaries, also allowing tribes to intervene in state cases.
Ratified by the U.S. in 1986, the Genocide Convention was not implemented until 1989, and then only after denying universal jurisdiction and limiting prosecutions under the act to a five-year statute of limitations for violations of the federal crime of genocide.
As a measure of the government’s commitment to punishing the ultimate international crime, the federal offenses of arson, art theft, immigration violation, and some crimes against financial institutions all carry a statute of limitations period longer than five years. Rios Montt himself would be immune from prosecution under the federal genocide act.
Thwarted by the five-year limitation, the U.S. Justice Department indicted former Rwandan official Lazare Kobagaya in 2009 for allegedly lying about his participation in genocide on his application for citizenship, but the government failed to prove his involvement in the 1994 bloodbath and eventually dropped the charges.
A remarkable 2011 National Public Radio series, “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families,” revealed that the federal government not only fails to enforce the baseline standards of ICWA against the states but actually underwrites the removal of Native children in some cases with additional funds, adding an economic incentive to the racial and cultural ones.
Focusing on South Dakota, a year-long investigation by NPR reporters Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, found that 90% of the 700 Native children taken from their homes yearly in that state were placed in white foster homes or group homes, in blatant violation of ICWA provisions mandating that any Indian child taken into foster care be placed with a family member, tribal member, or other Native family in the absence of “good cause” to the contrary.
Far from punishing states for violations of ICWA, despite its finding that 32 states systemically violate its terms, the federal government effectively promotes the legal abduction of children by offering a $12,000 bounty to the state for permanently removing “special needs” children from their natural families to adoptive placement, a designation the state of South Dakota applies to all indigenous children, according to NPR. Foster families in South Dakota receive as much as $9000 annually for each child. While the federal government also provides ICWA workers for each reservation, these typically serve as flunkies for the states, at most tepidly attempting to shift federal funds to tribal coffers.
Perhaps the most damning revelation of the NPR report is its tracing of South Dakota’s kidnapping-for-profit scheme to the state’s highest official: “Critics say foster care in South Dakota has become a powerhouse for private group home providers who bring in millions of dollars in state contracts to care for kids. Among them is Children’s Home Society, the state’s largest foster care provider, which has close ties with top government officials. It used to be run by South Dakota’s Gov. Dennis Daugard.
“An NPR investigation has found that Daugard was on the group’s payroll while he was lieutenant governor—and while the group received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts. It’s an unusual relationship highlighting the powerful role money and politics play in South Dakota’s foster care system.” If the federal government were to uphold its obligations under ICWA and the Genocide Convention, Gov. Daugaard would seem a fit candidate for the first indictment of a U.S.-born citizen under the federal genocide statute.
Daugaard declined to attend the May 15-17 Great Plains Indian Child Welfare Act Summit, despite a personal invitation from U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, the top federal Indian bureaucrat. So Daugaard is not only aware, thanks to the NPR report, of the genocidal effects of policies from which he personally profited, but is unwilling to meet with the victims toward rectification of the crimes of his Department of Social Services, which include the cover-up of cases of sexual assault in white foster homes and extensive pharmaceutical drugging of children without parental consent. Following the governor’s lead, no South Dakota officials attended the historic meeting, in which nine tribes and top federal officials participated, along with more than 200 aggrieved tribal members.
The tribal summit and the NPR series were spearheaded by the Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP), which has relentlessly challenged the state legally and politically and is bringing increasing pressure on the federal government to act. Dan Sheehan, chief legal counsel for the LPLP and director of the Romero [formerly Christic] Institute, said South Dakota officials are “into a total dialectical, confrontational stance. They’re feeling like they’re under siege from the tribes, so they’re circling the wagons and getting ready to fight.”
Sheehan said the South Dakota legislature has appropriated $2.3 million to defend the state from a pending class-action federal civil rights lawsuit.
Sheehan traced the institutionalization of state kidnapping of Native children back to the late William Janklow, a former South Dakota congressman, governor, and attorney general notorious for his role in what the Lakota refer to as the “Reign of Terror” on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the years following the American Indian Movement-led occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
According to Sheehan, members of the George W. Bush administration tipped off Janklow on a Texas strategy to grab millions of dollars in federal subsidies by administering a psychological test devised by the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical corporation to children taken into protective custody. Replicating the strategy, South Dakota developed a mental health test failed by 98% of Native children, who then become “special needs” cases under federal law, with the state receiving up to $79,000 for each Indian child and the child being placed involuntarily on psychoactive drugs.
“They ask questions like ‘do you feel like people are staring at you when you go out in public’ in racist Rapid City, or ‘do you feel you’re treated unfairly’ to a child who’s just been uprooted from his home and placed with strangers,” said Sheehan.
The immediate priorities of the LPLP, Sheehan says, are to affect the transfer of South Dakota child-protection services to the tribes and to persuade the U.S. Justice Department to serve as lead plaintiff in its civil rights suit against the state. The latter is currently on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision in the atypical “Baby Veronica” case, which challenges the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Sheehan says tribal officials have yet to determine whether they will support the Lakota Grandmothers’ UN genocide petition, suggesting their decision may hinge on whether the Justice Department exercises its responsibility to take up their cause domestically.
While it is unlikely that President Obama or Chief Justice Roberts (who termed the minimal protections of ICWA placement standards “extraordinary rights” in oral arguments) will ever be called to account by an international tribunal for complicity in genocide so long as the U.S. refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, they may wish to consider the potential damage to their personal reputations and that of their nation that even an unenforceable international verdict could bring. Just ask Lazare Kobagaya.
Photo: Charmaine White Face (left) and Canupa Gluha Mani deliver petition to Tracy Toulou, an official at the federal Office of Tribal Justice, April 17.